The archives of Wigmore Hall naturally contain information about many facets of its life – the records we hold tell the stories of thousands of concerts and artists, of our staff, of agencies and instruments, building specifications, flower arrangers, drinks suppliers…
For one key part of our history, however, one must look further afield. The odd mention here and there in a published collection of letters or diaries; a hunch followed down a rabbit warren of other archives; even word-of-mouth. All ways in which we are now beginning to search for that crucial but surprisingly elusive missing piece: the Wigmore Hall audience.
‘I suppose I told you how I saw you years before I knew you?’ wrote Virginia Woolf to the composer Ethel Smyth in 1940, ‘Coming bustling down the gangway at the Wigmore Hall, in tweeds and spats…’ This charming image is one of several references to concerts here in Woolf’s letters and diaries, and the discovery that we could place her at Wigmore Hall for certain – that beyond a doubt, crossing our auditorium one is walking in the steps of Virginia Woolf – has sparked our curiosity. Who else might once have come through our doors?
The answer is not easy to pin down. With confirmation often existing only in an offhand remark in correspondence or a scribble in a diary, even published writings or biographies might omit mentioning a trip to an evening concert or one particular afternoon in London.
Since there are no audience lists to consult, a certain amount of lateral thinking and guesswork is involved! For example, since the painter John Singer Sargent was a close friend of the baritone George Henschel, who regularly performed at the Hall in its early years, can we hope that he might have come to hear him sing? Did the unassuming British composer Robert Coningsby Clarke, who sometimes accompanied his own pieces here, ever invite his housemate to a recital – one Radclyffe Hall?
These questions remain unanswered for now. However, people we can be sure attended recitals here include the writer Siegfried Sassoon (a biography places him at a concert by the Hungarian String Quartet on 8 February 1927), the philosopher Bertrand Russell and all three Sitwell siblings, as well as the formidable Margot Asquith and the then Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.